About two months after beginning air strikes in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State, the Pentagon has finally given a name to the campaign: Operation Inherent Resolve. Some critics of aspects of the operation — see Senator Ted Cruz on NRO last week – had suggested that its anonymity spoke to its inadequacy and incoherence. Alas, the naming operation turned out to be ad hoc itself: “Inherent Resolve” was apparently a placeholder that officers thought was too lame to keep, with one of them telling the Wall Street Journal a couple weeks ago the name “is just kind of bleh.” But it stuck.
The practice of branding military operations didn’t start with the U.S. military — the Germans started doing it in World War I, when military planning started getting really complicated and they needed names to organize sub-operations. The U.S. started doing it regularly in World War II, assigning meaningless colors to operations for security’s sake: Operation Indigo was the invasion of Iceland; Operation Gray was the invasion of the Azores. The Allies’ war soon got too big for the color wheel, so the British and the Americans came up with lists of random words to use to describe operations. Sometimes thye were a little too random: Winston Churchill, for instance, objected to labeling a risky American bombing operation over Romania’s oil fields “Operation Soapsuds” and got the name changed to “Tidal Wave.” Sometimes the names were a bit cheeky: When the British planted a freshly deceased corpse in an officer’s uniform, along with large amounts of fake plans for the invasion of Greece (the real plan was to hit Sicily), on the coast of Spain, the gambit was called Operation Mincemeat.
In any case, things got really professional toward the end of the Cold War, when a general with a journalism degree supposedly decided to dub the invasion of Panama Operation Just Cause. Since then, more or less, names have been picked to help boost perceptions of the operation among the public. Even the U.S. military mission to contain Ebola in West Africa immediately got a name, Operation United Assistance.